Ever since the fox took our Light Brahma rooster, we have been forced to learn everything we can about guarding our livestock. Later, we will have to worry more about the goats and other predators such as mountain lion, coyote, bobcat, eagles, and hawks, but for now, the big concern is protecting our chicken flock and goat babies from fox. You can read more about that here.
We have learned a lot in the last couple of months. Our first attempt was to use a donkey to guard, as they are often praised as being good guardians. We also like the multi-purpose aspect, as the kids can ride, we use her for therapy for A and N, and eventually, we plan to train her to drive.
I have obviously had very limited experience in this area, but that experience, mixed with my research and my past experiences with wild horses have helped me draw a few conclusions.
Donkeys have a lot of advantages as a guardian. Particularly if they are the only donkey in the herd, they can bond closely with other species, which can intensify that need to protect them. They eat the same thing, or complimentary things as the herd they are protecting. They can also thrive on sparse, roughage foods most domestic horses cannot. Thus, wherever sheep and goats can thrive, so can a donkey. Furthermore, they are quite hardy animals, require little maintenance, are not as flighty or as easily spooked as horses, and are usually very gentle and easy to train.
I’ve found, however, that there are a few issues worth considering in using a donkey as a guard.
Donkeys are still prey animals by nature, and if the predator is deemed to be too big, scary, or dangerous, a donkey will generally give in and run. For that reason, you must set your donkey up for success. One way to do that is by size alone. because many wild dog packs and coyote/dog hybrids are quite large, as a general rule, the small mediterranean or mini donkeys just won’t cut it. So, you need a donkey that is at least a small-standard or standard sized. This means roughly 10-13 hands at the shoulder. There are also Mammoth donkeys, which are the size of a full-sized horse, but, the larger the donkey is, the more problems that could cause, too.
Gender also plays a role. Jacks, for one, can seldom be trusted to protect. They can be too playful, too rough, too aggressive, etc., and can (and do) easily injure or kill the livestock they are supposed to be protecting. Geldings are a better option, as they don’t have the testosterone, but they can still be very playful and rough. Mares (Jennies) are generally considered the ideal, as their temperaments are generally the calmest and gentlest, with the least amount of playfulness. Of course, this varies by individual too. Some geldings may be far more trustworthy than some mares.
Another problem I have observed with Shiloh, my previous BLM mustang mares, and read about with other’s experiences, is that you have to be careful to introduce the donkey to its “herd.” They seem to view every animal or individual group of animals as seperate and unique. Either they accept them, or they don’t, and I haven’t found much in between. The problem is if they DON’T accept, then any animal risks being treated as a predatory canine. The good news is that, because of the way a donkey “needs” to bond with other animals, the introductions can be fairly easy. Usually, penning the donkey alone for a few days or so across the fence line from the group it should guard is all it takes. They get to know each other while the flock or herd is protected, and then, when the donkey is introduced under supervision, there seems to be generally little threat. If this process is not done properly, however, the results can be tragic should the donkey refuse to accept the new herd member. For example, Shiloh bonded quickly with Stallion, our buck. They are housed together. Across the fence-line are our does, where she can see, smell, and interact, but not access them. The few times we turned her out with our does, she did OK, though she had a tendency to chase our little doeling. I think it was in a playful way, though at times it was hard to tell. After a while, she relaxed, and everyone got along fine. We then sold that doeling, and someone gave us a boer doeling for meat. The first time I turned Shiloh out with her, I had forgotten to do proper introductions through the fence. I just turned them out. Shiloh instantly put her tunnel-vision sights on that little doeling, and took off after her in a much more aggressive way. Thankfully, I was there, shooed Shiloh away, and took the doeling back out. They haven’t been together since. Whether Shiloh would have hurt her, I don’t know, but there is no doubt in my mind she could have if she desired to. By what I have read, this can also be an issue with kidding season. Donkeys have been known to reject and kill new kids, and others have been known to steal kids from the does in a nurturing way (but which can still be fatal if the kid can’t nurse).
Finally, a donkey’s desire is to protect itself and its immediate territory against primarily the canine species. So, should a fox or other dog-like predator come near it, it will do a great job chasing the predator away. If the predator chooses not to run, things could get very ugly while the donkey shows it its permanent, eternal place. No, I have not seen Shiloh do this, however, I have seen one of my former mustang mares do it (many times), and it wasn’t pretty. I have, however, seen the same look in Shiloh’s eye though, so I wouldn’t put it past her. This may sound like a good thing, but what it means is that the protection is limited to only those animals near the donkey. The donkey happens to enjoy hanging out with our goats. If the chickens choose to stay close, they too, are protected. Most of the time, however, the chickens and donkey couldn’t care less about each other, so they wind up on opposite ends of the pasture, with the chickens left vulnerable and wide open to attack.
I was really debating this fact until recently. I was standing in my kitchen, working at the sink in front of the window that overlooks the pasture. Shiloh, Stallion, and the chickens were all out there, near the center. Suddenly, I heard a commotion, saw all the chickens running toward the coop, Shiloh’s ears were erect, and then she suddenly took off at a full gallop in the opposite direction, towards what she was looking at. Now, if you know donkeys, you know donkeys seldom run. Whatever it was out there, she was going after with purpose. I ran outside, and based on the body language of the other animals, am convinced the fox had entered the side of the pen Shiloh ran to, and she effectively ran him off before he got a chicken.
A few days later, however, I observed a similar scenario, but this time, the chickens were grazing at one side of the pasture in a wooded area, while Shiloh and Stallion were at another end. I heard a commotion, saw chickens run, and then saw the fox darting back and forth, as a he chased a chicken running for its life. I bolted out the door, screaming at him like a mad woman, and ran him off. All the chickens were OK this time, but interestingly, I noticed Shiloh at the other end of the pasture, just observing. In this case, I am convinced that the fox was far enough away from her and able to use the trees to hide somewhat, that, although she was fully aware of his presence, he did not pose a direct threat to her or her immediate territory, and therefore, she did not chase him. Had I not been there, I’m sure he would have gotten a chicken.
So, to summarize, I think donkeys can make great guardians in some situations, and lousy ones in others. If the primary predator problem is canine-related, donkeys are good. If the pasture is wide open space, where the donkey can see the predator coming a ways off, they are a good option. If the livestock they are protecting can be properly introduced to the donkey, they are probably a good option. Finally, if you can find stock that is bred from proven guardians, or are willing to adopt a BLM burro (which have been known to excel at guarding), then you increase your chances of success. It is certainly not something to take lightly though. Even a small standard donkey is big and can inflict a lot of damage on a new herd overnight, if, for some reason, it does not accept that herd or individuals within that herd.
As a side note, I know of several farms that use llamas for guarding. Based on what I have read and heard, llamas have a lot of similarities to donkeys. I know of at least one farm that uses emus to protect poultry with some success. I have not tried either, however, and cannot give much info there.